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An Interview with Alice Guthrie and Corine Tachtiris

Corine Tachtiris interviews Alice Guthrie, winner of the 8th Annual Jules Chametzky Prize for Translation for her translation of Atef Abu Saif's "The Lottery".

Corine Tachtiris: I thought we could start by talking about “The Lottery.” One of the things I noticed is that there’s a balance between this really intimate voice, where you feel like you’re part of a community, and these larger political forces that are outside of people’s control. So I wanted to ask you about creating that balance in the translation.

Alice Guthrie: Yes, that was something that I really liked and like still about the story. I mean, without being faux humble, I don’t feel that’s so much in my job as translator as in [Atef Abu Saif’s] job as writer. I guess it does come into the way I tried to use, hopefully, very realistic language in the spoken dialogue, but that’s always a key attempt of mine. I feel like what you said is a really good description of what is so great about the story itself.

CT: And did you find that readers who aren’t familiar with the environment in which the story is happening would have enough context to understand it? Did you feel like you maybe wanted to insert some glosses? The life of these people in this refugee camp may be unfamiliar to people, especially because I think it doesn’t seem to be what people usually imagine a refugee camp is like—there are cars and crowds and homes.

AG: Absolutely. With regards to people having that stereotype, obviously part of the Palestinian tragedy and the crime that’s being committed against Palestinians is that these refugee camps have become very established. And so what started off as tents have become concrete buildings and so on, so that you’ve got multigenerational [families], people born into the refugee camp and everything. So that’s a specific Palestinian thing, but it’s also sadly increasingly relevant in the wider world as we see the criminalization of the displaced. So there’s an entrenching of displacement as part of the new normal in our late-stage capitalist (or whatever you want to call it) moment. So that has a specific and a universal relevance or value in terms of making people re-examine what they might think of when they think refugee camp, because there’s so many versions of the refugee experience.

In terms of the beginning of your question, I think something that I really like about this story is the way that Abu Saif strikes this very masterful balance between really painting the picture of where they are—without overdoing it, without explaining every little thing. And I think that that’s really hard to get right. You know, I think I often get annoyed with writers who aren’t giving us enough information about what’s going on in the background, about what the situation is, about where these people are, who assume that the reader is inside their mind or something. But it would also bother me if it were being overdone. For my taste, [Abu Saif] gets a really nice balance there. So when he feeds in little bits like right at the end when he talks about the refuse truck coming, it’s not contrived. It somehow feels natural and really effective, which I really like. And similarly, to go back to your first question, for me, the political stuff that he brings in is not contrived. It doesn’t feel like he had a political idea and just wanted to write the story around it. And this is something that I would say about him in general, what I really like about his work, is that he’s really political, but he is genuinely a really skilled fiction writer as well.

CT: The numbers of translations being published in the UK, at least, are going up. Do you see that also applying to literature translated from Arabic?

AG: Yeah, I do. I’m suppose I’m still aware that we’re a tiny niche within a tiny niche. Translated literature in general is really tiny, and then Arabic is tiny within that, and so what’s also really problematic is the temptation to use literature as a kind of sociological document, and have this reductive gaze. So people ask me things like, “What do Arabic women think about...?” You know any question that begins with that is obviously really problematic. The way that can translate, no pun intended, into choices, you can suddenly get attention for the wrong reasons, and especially around women. But there are lots of people who are doing a lot to try and make that not be the case, and to problematize and diversify the offer. But I guess I still feel like there’s a lot to be done about who’s translating and how, and whether and how it’s being edited, and the whole scene of how stuff’s being assessed and awarded. There are difficulties within all of those, despite the fact that there’s some great stuff happening, too.

CT: That ties into the work that you’re doing with the Shubbak Festival, which also seems to be about advocating for a diversity of voices, about bringing literature from Arabic to a wider public. Could you talk about the work you do there and also how you choose which authors to bring?

AG: Yeah, it’s really exciting being able to do that. What’s also kind of terrifying about it is that, as you can imagine, you have such a long list, and then you shorten it down, and then you have to narrow it down even more, and then people are like, “How come you didn’t include so-and-so?” And we have certain pressures, we have to raise the funds for things. Our program is definitely not dictated by the funders, but that’s in the mix. But within that, it’s really exciting to be able to program people.

One of the things that I’m most excited about in my current work is—I identify as queer—that I’m increasingly able to focus, not exclusively but as much as I can, on queer writing and queer writers in my translating and also programming and curational practice. And in the last edition of Shubbak, in 2017, for the first time we did a panel of queer writers, and that was an incredible process behind the scenes, finding who was willing to appear under that banner and making sure that everybody felt good about it. And it was a real roaring success. As a result of that we’re making that a regular event within the literary strand, which is what I program at the Festival. That has been so incredibly moving and exciting to be able to program queer content from a region in which it is so difficult to make queer art, or have a queer identity, or live a queer life.

And so, that’s incredibly moving, and it intersects with another project that I’ve got going on, which is putting together an anthology of queer Arabic writing in collaboration with a publisher from Cairo. So that will be an Arabic edition and an English edition in parallel, and that just feels like really important work. What’s really, really nice about Shubbak is when my wider existence as a writer, translator, editor, can feed into that and vice versa. Not that it’s exclusively down to me to choose who goes in or not, because we’ve got other people in the team, but I’m leading on that and so it feels, in a small, humble way, like a really lovely thing to be able to do, to hold a space for those kind of works, as well as plenty of other people who don’t identify as queer or aren’t doing queer work, of course.

CT: Also in regards to bringing in a diverse range of voices, I noticed that one of your interests is in the vernacular. So I wondered, as you’re translating texts from Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and other places, how much of the vernacular is reflected in the literature and how much is modern standard Arabic that doesn’t allow for as much diversity in what things end up sounding like in translation? Do you get to play with vernacular and how to bring that over?

AG: It’s super interesting because even if a writer is writing completely in fuṣḥá, which is modern standard Arabic, including all of the dialogue, you’re still going to have to make it sound like convincing vernacular. So that’s really hard for us to wrap our heads around: the fact that they have characters speaking to each in other in what you could say sounds very formal, like Latin or high German or something, but you still have to translate that as, “Alright, how’s it going?” or whatever. It would be a mistranslation to be rendering it very formally. So there’s already that to deal with.

When writers are using dialect in writing, it’s very exciting. I was always really keen to make sure that I learnt dialect. So I speak Syrian dialect, which is very similar to Lebanese and Palestinian. And I love the fact that when I’m in Morocco, people say, “Ah, did you learn in Syria?” They can hear it. It’s an amazing thing. So when I work on Syrian texts with Syrian dialect, it’s very satisfying to be hearing that in the way that you would in a conversation with a Syrian person, and rendering it in the way that you would talk in English. But of course, it can be really problematic when translators work on dialects that they don’t speak themselves. There is a lot that can go wrong. I’m currently learning vernacular Moroccan, but I would not at the moment take on translating something that was written in Moroccan Darija dialect because I would miss loads of stuff.

CT: I also translate Caribbean texts, where it’s something different from French from France, and when bringing that over into English, some people put that into an African American dialect, but African American dialect isn’t the same as a Caribbean dialect. So how do you choose what English to bring a dialect into?

AG: I know, that whole thing is fraught with imperfection. I remember this being mind-blowing when I first started translating. One of the early things I did was another Palestinian writer, and it had loads of strong dialect all the way through it. And [I just got] in a complete tangle with the editor of that project. We’re from different parts of the country, and we totally disagreed on how things sounded, just within British vernacular—we had totally different associations for slang terms.

So I totally agree, I think it’s super confusing and inappropriate for something to be culturally transplanted so that you get a Gazan sounding like somebody from Washington Heights or whatever it would be, somebody sounding like a really specific thing. That’s just mad to me, that’s really inappropriate. Like, I would be interested to see maybe a drama production of a play from Gaza that was put into really strong Glaswegian or something, but that’s not something that I would want to read as a translation, that would be a different project.

So there’s something about finding that middle ground, where it’s completely contradictory, isn’t it, because what you’re looking for is a universal slang, and there’s no such thing. You’re looking for a slang that is bland enough and generic enough that it’s just going to kind of be in the background so that there’s a sort of suspension of disbelief that we’re reading a text in English and this is how they talk. And as soon as you do anything that’s too extravagant, or too formal, too exaggerated, too clunky, whatever it is, then you’re going to break the spell. The reader’s going to be like, “hang on a minute, this is in Gaza, right? why are they saying ‘dude’?” or whatever. So I think that is such a difficult tightrope walk act. It’s an incredible thing to even attempt, isn’t it really? It’s amazing that so many of us throw ourselves into it for some reason. It’s not like it pays well.

CT: How do you balance those loyalties to the text and its cultural contexts, and your loyalties also to the reader, and their expectations, their aesthetic expectations, their cultural expectations, how they enjoy literature? You have that balance of trying to respect one thing and also respect the reader and also give them a text that they want to read because if it goes too much against their expectations they might not even read it.

AG: In a way, I think that’s kind of a road to madness because the idea of trying to guess, even the idea that there is a reader who is going to think this or that is, if you think about it, a kind of a road to madness because we know that we’re all idiosyncratic individual readers with our own tastes. I mean I know obviously there are bestselling works and there are trends in publishing. I guess it really depends a lot on the writer. When I was reading back through the story just now, I was thinking, yeah, Atef does a lot of really neat stuff. Like, I wouldn’t say it was easy to translate, and there was quite a long editorial process, but it also was able to stay pretty closely cleaving to the original, obviously as it should. But with some writers, there’d be really quite a lot of things that don’t really work that you have to unpick, you go back to the writer, and you go, “hmm, your metaphor changed halfway through, did you notice?” [Atef] has really got it under control.

And about Atef: The latest is that he seems to be on the firm road to recovery, which is great news. He’s still in hospital, but he’s progressing. A terrible trauma happened to him, and it’s very upsetting that it happened to him, but thank God it seems like he’s escaped more serious consequences since initially he was unconscious. One thing that I did want to say is that it was really poignant timing because I literally found out about the prize and emailed him just a few days before the attack. I emailed to tell him congratulations, and to say they really praised your story, it’s not just my translation, and kind of said, we haven’t been in touch for a while, [but] I always love working on your stuff. A while ago we’d been in touch about me possibly translating his novel, and things kind of fell by the wayside. And it just seemed so poignant that I’d just written to tell him about this win and suddenly this news came. And I already knew that I really appreciated his work and really respected him and really liked him as a writer, but when something like this happens, when you think someone’s possibly about to die, it really kind of throws it into relief, doesn’t it? You realize just how important people are.

A friend who used to be a journalist in Gaza said to me: the thing is in Gaza you can feel like anything could happen and the world wouldn’t react, like it’s a separate place. So hopefully once he gets stronger and he’s out of hospital this will be like a big greeting of solidarity to him. You can’t say the world is watching, but a lot of us, we see you.


ALICE GUTHRIE is a British translator, editor, journalist and event producer specializing in Arabic-English literary and media content. Since 2008, her work has appeared in a range of international publications, with an increasing focus on Syria, where she studied Arabic between 2001 and 2003. She is literary producer for Shubbak, London’s biennial festival of Arab arts and culture, and bilingually edits Arabic-English translations for various literary presses. A former Translator in Residence at London’s Free Word Centre and American Literary Translators Association Fellow, in 2015 she was a recipient—with Syrian writer Rasha Abbas—of the Omi International Translation Lab fellowship.

CORINE TACHTIRIS is a literary translator focusing on the work of contemporary women writers from Haiti, Africa, and the Czech Republic and a judge for the 8th Annual Jules Chametzky Prize. Her translation of Frieda Ekotto’s Don’t Whisper Too Much, the first Francophone African novel to feature women loving women in a positive light, is forthcoming in early 2019. She currently teaches in the Comparative Literature department at UMass Amherst.

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